The Warsaw Protocol by Steve Berry: New Excerpt
By Steve BerryJanuary 13, 2020
TUESDAY, JUNE 4
Cotton Malone hated when two plus two equaled five. Over the course of his former career as an American intelligence officer, that troubling result had happened far more often than not. Call it an occupational hazard or merely just plain bad luck. No matter. Nothing good ever came from fuzzy math.
He was standing inside what the Belgians called Heileg Bloed Basiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a foreboding 12th-century edifice, home to one of Europe’s most sacred reliquaries. The ancient church was tucked into a corner of the castle square, squished between the old city hall and a row of modern shops. He’d traveled to Bruges for the largest antiquarian book fair in Europe, one he’d attended several times before. In fact, it was a favorite. Not only because he loved the city, but also thanks to the best dessert in the world.
Dame Blanche. White Lady.
Vanilla ice cream, drenched in warm Belgian chocolate, topped with whipped cream. Back in America they called them sundaes. Fairly ordinary. Not here. The locals had elevated the treat into an art form. Each café possessed its own version, and he’d definitely be enjoying another incarnation after dinner tonight.
Right now he’d come to see a spectacle. One he’d never witnessed before, but had heard about. It used to happen only once a week. Now it was every day, either mornings between 11:30 and noon or 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, according to the placard out front.
It even had a title.
The Veneration of the Precious Blood.
Legend said that, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea was granted Christ’s body. With solemn devotion he cleaned the corpse, catching all the blood flowing from the wounds into a sacred vessel, which he supposedly passed down to his descendants. Depending on which version was to be believed, drops of that blood made their way to Bruges either in the 12th century by way of Jerusalem or in the 13th century through Constantinople.
Nobody knows which tale was true.
But here that blood had stayed, occasionally hidden away from Calvinists, revolutionaries, and invaders. Pilgrims had come for centuries to see it, encouraged by a papal bull from the 14th century that granted indulgences to all who prayed before the relic. The whole thing ranked as beyond strange given that the Bible mentioned nothing about any of Christ’s blood ever being preserved.
Yet that had not deterred the faithful.
The basilica consisted of two chapels. The lower dark and Romanesque, and the upper bright and Gothic. Twice destroyed, each time rebuilt. He glanced around at the upper chapel. The soaring ceilings of three richly embellished naves drove the eyes heavenward. Impressive stained-glass windows allowed golden rays of afternoon sunlight to seep inside. An elegant ceiling, like an upturned boat, stretched overhead, all in stunning polychrome woodwork. A bronzed pulpit hung high on one wall, shaped like a globe. A gold-laden altar stood before a series of ascending murals, rich in color, that, appropriately, depicted Christ shedding blood. Tourists filled the rows of wooden chairs before the communion rail, and even more loitered about snapping pictures.
But back to that weird math of two plus two equaling five.
Starting with three men.
Different from the other visitors. Young, cautious, unshaven for a few days, with plain, even features. Their faces also wore a different expression from those surrounding them, as if they had a more urgent reason to be here than mere sightseeing. Their alertness bothered Cotton, projecting a tension that said these were not tourists. A final red flag came from their positions, strategically around the chapel, near the exterior walls, their focus more on one another than the reverent surroundings.
He glanced at his watch. 2:00 P.M.
A bell sounded.
In the side nave, beyond the arches, a door opened and a priest emerged.
The veneration had begun.
A robed prelate carried a rectangular-shaped, glass-sided box. Inside, atop a red velvet pillow, lay the reliquary. The phial itself, which harbored pieces of sheep’s wool clotted with blood, was about six inches long and two inches wide. Mainly rock crystal of a clear Byzantine origin, the neck was wound with golden thread, the end stoppers sealed with wax. It lay inside a larger glass cylinder with golden coronets ornamented by angels. He’d read enough about the outer cylinder to know that engraved on the frame was a date in Roman numerals.
May 3, 1388.
The priest paraded across the chapel, on his face an expression of great piety, to what was known as the Throne of the Relic, a white marble Baroque altar, its top covered by more red velvet. The prelate gently laid the glass-lined box atop the platform then sat in a chair, ready for the faithful to pray before the relic.
But not before they each made a donation.
A line formed to the left where another priest stood before a collection bowl. People dropped euros into it before stepping up the short stairs and spending a few moments in silence with the relic. Cotton wondered what would happen if someone failed to drop a coin but still wanted to venerate. Would they be turned away?
The Three Amigos had shifted position and, along with everyone else, moved from the main nave toward the side chapel. Several attendants shepherded the crowd and shushed any voices that rose too loud. Pictures, pointing, videos, gawking, and donating were allowed.
Talking, not so much.
One of the Amigos worked his way into the veneration line. The other two stayed back, near the archways, watching the spectacle from twenty feet away. A bank of devotional candles separated the Throne of the Relic from the crowd, a couple hundred little glass sockets, many of them flickering with flames. Several of the visitors approached and lit a candle of their own. After, of course, dropping a coin into a metal container.
People continued to step up to the reliquary, pausing a few moments for prayer and a sign of the cross. The pair of Amigos who’d stayed back both toted knapsacks. Though many of the others present also carried them, something about these two shouldering them didn’t seem right.
Twelve years he’d worked for the Justice Department at the Magellan Billet, after a career in the navy and time as a JAG lawyer. Now he was retired, opting out early, the owner of a rare-book shop in Copenhagen, occasionally available for hire by governments and intelligence agencies. He made a good side living from freelancing, but today was no job. Just sightseeing. Apparently in the right place at the wrong time.
Something was happening.
Something that every instinct in his nearly fifty-year-old body told him was not good. Old habits were truly hard to break.
The Amigo in line approached the collection bowl, dropped in a coin, then climbed the short steps to the marble table where the stoic priest remained on guard. The two other Amigos slipped off their backpacks and unzipped them. The clangor of alarm bells inside Cotton’s head took on a shriller tone. He could hear the robot from Lost in Space, the old sci-fi show. Warning, Will Robinson. Danger. Warning.
One Amigo removed a gun, the other held what appeared to be a metal cylinder. He pulled the pin and tossed the canister into the side chapel.
Smoke immediately billowed out.
His thoughts were shattered by the sharp report of the gun being fired twice into the ceiling. Plaster and wood splinters showered down. A wave of panic spread fast. A woman shrieked. Voices were raised. More screaming. People moved in a herd toward the only exit, a richly decorated circular staircase that led down. Maybe a hundred, all rushing out, creating pandemonium.
Another shot rang out.
A thick cloud of gray smoke billowed into the main nave, obstructing the view into the side chapel and reliquary. Cotton pushed through the crowd and headed for the smoke. Through the growing haze he saw the Amigo who’d been in line shoving the priest aside. Another wave of excited visitors formed a wall between where he stood and the Three Amigos, who were moving farther against the grain of the exodus. He pushed his way forward, the two other Amigos angling toward the third, who shattered the glass case holding the reliquary. The priest lunged, trying to stop the theft, but one of the Amigos planted a fist in the older man’s face, sending him down.
What was this?
A classic flash-and-bang robbery?
Sure looked like it.
And it was working.
The Three Amigos moved toward the side door from which the priest had first entered, which surely led into the back bowels of the basilica. Probably another way down, too. Which meant these guys had done their homework.
Cotton cleared past the last of the frantic tourists and stepped into the side chapel. He was having trouble breathing, coughing out smoke, his eyes watering. The priest was a concern, so he made his way to the altar and found the older man lying on the floor.
“You okay?” he asked.
The guy was groggy, his right eye red and swollen. But the priest grabbed Cotton’s right arm in a tight clamp. “Need to … get it back.”
The Three Amigos were gone.
Surely the police were on the way. Somebody had to have alerted them. But they’d be little help in finding the thieves, who were about to dissolve into the busy streets of Bruges.
He galvanized himself into action.
“I’ll get it back.”
Jonty Olivier hated the intimidation aspect of his business. He considered himself a refined gentleman, a man of distinguished taste, a connoisseur of aged wine and good food. A learned man whose studies of the classics dominated his spare time. Even his name conjured up movie royalty. Olive-ee-ay. As in Sir Laurence Olivier. Above all, he was a consummate professional. His specialty? Information. His reputation? One of a man who could provide exactly what someone needed to know.
Interested in the hidden net worth of a potential business partner or a possible buyer? No problem. How many automatic rifles and how much ammunition had the Boko Haram imported into Nigeria last month? Easy. What will the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia press for at the coming bilateral talks? A bit more difficult, but doable. What were the Hizbul Mujahideen up to in Kashmir, or how will the EU foreign exchange markets value the euro at the close of business today? Both tricky, but the answers would be close enough. Besides, he gave a discount if he wasn’t 100 percent sure, since by and large partial information was far better than none at all. His motto? Scientia potentia est. Sir Francis Bacon had been right.
Knowledge is power.
But its acquisition came with challenges. Greed remained a universal motivator, so money usually worked. Bartering also brought results. He didn’t even mind a hard bargain, as that was the nature of the game.
But spies? Those he detested.
The arms and legs of the man sitting before him were taped to a metal chair. A wire snaked into the mouth and down the esophagus, its gauge carefully chosen, fine enough not to trigger any gagging reflex, but thick enough to do the job. At its end hung a metallic, conductive beak, while the other end connected to a DC transformer. Amateurs would have worked on the exterior, prying, twisting, beating, or kicking the information out. He preferred a more refined approach. This technique administered a much deeper and more painful discomfort, and came with the added benefit of not leaving a mark.
He pointed. “Who sent you?”
He glanced at his associate. Vic DiGenti had worked with him a long time. Their paths had first crossed in his former line of work, where he’d learned that Vic could handle almost anything. And thank goodness. Everyone needed a sidekick. Laurel had Hardy. Martin, Lewis. He had Vic. A thin, gnarly man with straight black hair and narrow gray eyes. A person of few words, but with great discretion and absolute loyalty, all with a total lack of greed.
He motioned and Vic twisted the transformer control.
The eyes of the man bound to the chair went wide as electricity surged through the thin line and down his throat. The body convulsed against the straps. Not a sound was made, as one of the side effects of this particular method of persuasion was an inability to scream. Vic knew when to stop and, after five seconds, he switched off the current.
The convulsions ended.
Spittle drooled from both corners of the man’s mouth.
A bit disgusting, but expected.
“Do you require another demonstration?” he asked. “I can certainly provide it. But I beg you, please don’t make that necessary.”
The man’s head shook from side to side, his breathing hard and labored.
The whitewashed walls around him smelled of damp and rot, and he wanted to be gone. “I’m going to ask my question again. It’s vitally important that you answer. Is that clear?”
The man nodded.
“Who. Do. You. Work. For?”
He let out a long exhale of exasperation.
Vic sent another five seconds of electricity through the man’s body. They had to be careful since DC current, if not delivered correctly, killed.
This spy had been caught yesterday in Bratislava. He and Vic had been there, ironing out a few last-minute details. They’d both noticed the attention, then used reflections off cars and an occasional glance to identify the pursuer. They then joined a throng of window-shoppers and confirmed that they had a tail. Vic, being ever vigilant, managed to snag the problem without drawing attention.
“Surely you must see that you’re on your own here,” Jonty pointed out. “No one is coming to save you. Do I have to give you another demonstration?”
“I was there to check on … you. To find out … what I could.”
The words came out choked from the wire down his throat, and with an Eastern European accent to the English.
“That’s obvious. What did you discover?”
“Nothing … at all.”
He doubted that. “Did you report your finding of nothing?”
All lies, surely.
“Who do you report to?”
This one was stubborn.
He motioned and Vic again turned the knob. The body pulsated hard against the restraints, bucking and stiffening. He allowed the agony to linger a few seconds longer this time, but not enough to paralyze the heart. He nodded and Vic killed the current. The man went limp in the chair, unconscious. Vic brought him around with two hard slaps to the face.
So much was about to happen. Seven invitations had been extended. Nearly all the invitees had shown interest. Only three RSVPs were outstanding. And the deadline loomed at midnight tomorrow, a little over twenty-four hours away.
“I don’t like spies,” he said to the man. “They obtain information, then simply give it to their employers. They are my chief competition. Thankfully, you’re not a good spy. I’ve asked twice. If you force me to ask a third time, I will leave the current on until you are dead.”
He allowed his bluff to take hold.
One rule he always adhered to, though never advertised, was that he killed no one. But he would make this man wish he were dead.
The coming operation was the most complicated he’d ever undertaken. Two in one, actually. Both intricate, with lots of moving parts, the one dependent on the other. But the rewards? Oh, the rewards. The one deal could yield twenty million euros or more. The other? Hard to know for sure, but it could approach a hundred million euros. Enough that he could do whatever he wanted for the rest of his life. But everything could be in jeopardy thanks to this spy.
His eyes met Vic’s.
“No. Please. Don’t,” the man begged.
His gaze shifted back to the spy. “Answer my question.”
“Reinhardt sent me.”
The name sent a shiver down his spine.
The last person he expected to be watching.
His gaze caught Vic’s.
And the knob was turned again.
Copyright © 2020 Steve Berry.